Childhood dreams, Pekingese dogs, feng shui and property development

Guest curated by Su-Ying Lee, the exhibition, A Small but Comfy House and Maybe a Dog, is Amy Ching-Yan Lam’s first major solo show and features sculptures made in collaboration with HaeAhn Woo Kwon in addition to objects from the collections of the Gallery and the neighbouring Richmond Public Library.

Amy Ching-Yan Lam, Looty Goes to Heaven, 2022 (video still) | Photo courtesy of Amy Ching-Yan Lam

“The title of this exhibition comes from an essay that Amy Ching-Yan Lam wrote to her future self at the age of 11, speculating that by the age of 25 she’d be married, have a career and ‘a small but comfy house and maybe a dog,’” says Lee. “Starting from these childhood fantasies of domestic love and financial stability, Lam presents artworks that explore how these dreams have been indirectly influenced by the wider trajectory of colonial history. With humour and acuity, she examines the complicated relationships between institutional collections and power, property and theft, and history and family.”

The exhibition, made possible by the Richmond Art Gallery (RAG), in partnership with the Richmond Public Library, runs from Apr. 22 to June 11, 2023.

Of dogs and palaces

Small but Comfy House and Maybe a Dog draws inspiration from two main sources: the first is the true story of Looty, a Pekingese dog taken from China’s Summer Palace by British troops at the end of the Second Opium War. Lam set off to fictionalize Looty’s life as a royal pet to the Queen in a book and animated video.

Drawing further on the theme of domestication, Lam, in collaboration with Kwon, created a new series of sculptures in which the pair remade toys and found objects to create a fantasy communal home. Analogous to both condo display models and Polly Pocket toys, the resulting artworks are small-scale living spaces fashioned inside of spaces like teapots and gourds.

Pieces of Chinese past

The second major inspiration is the City of Richmond itself. Lam looked to the RAG and the Richmond Public Library as examples of institutional collections and how they are formed. The artist was particularly inspired by the Dr. Lee Collection at the Richmond Public Library. Described as a ‘national treasure’ by antiquities experts, the Special Collection on Chinese Culture includes rare Chinese-language art books that have been gathered by Dr. Kwok-Chu Lee (Master Lam Chun) during his lifetime.

The RAG and Richmond Public Library, in conversation with Lam, curated a selection of items that will be on view in the exhibition. Among the pieces on display will be a series of ceramics depicting different animals from the Chinese zodiac, in relation to how similar animal depictions were featured in the Summer Palace. In turn, the RAG will have a temporary lending program of artworks from their Collection.

Amy Ching-Yan Lam, Looty Goes to Heaven, 2022 publication. | Photo courtesy of Amy Ching-Yan Lam

Lee was also passionate about feng shui. With regards to his dedication to the practice and in the context of the city’s numerous new luxury condominiums currently being built across the street from the RAG, Lam invited renowned feng shui expert Sherman Tai to better improve the flow of the exhibition. Following Tai’s recommendation that a water feature was needed in the space, a new fountain sculpture was also created.

Now based in Toronto, Lam temporarily lived in Vancouver when she first immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong with her family in 1989. A Small but Comfy House and Maybe a Dog weaves together the ongoing histories of her past and present homes, highlighting at every step how the two are inextricable.

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